“There’s lots of blood and vomit and all sorts of bodily fluids,” says Jamie Lloyd, director of the new James McAvoy-starring stage blockbuster Macbeth.

We’ve managed to catch him on a rare break from final rehearsals for the show, which premieres this weekend. And going by Lloyd’s admission, it isn’t going to be for the faint-hearted. “It’s a really visceral and sweaty production,” he concedes.

“They’re getting very, very messy in there.”You’ve probably seen the posters on the Tube by now – McAvoy (X-Men: First Class; Wanted; Atonement) surrounded by the debris of a dystopian future, an ominous mist swirling about him in the shape of a skull.

Lloyd has chosen to retell Shakespeare’s darkest tale in a future separatist Scotland, torn apart by war and festering under a toxic fog.

It promises to be a thrilling spectacle, not only because of its star actor and director (Lloyd, at just 32, has won an Olivier award, been appointed associate director of the Donmar Warehouse, and blew away Broadway with his Cyrano de Bergerac), but also thanks in part to its being staged at the revamped Trafalgar Studios.

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Lloyd and his team have completely reworked the space to immerse the audience in Macbeth with startling intensity. But more of that later.

The director is at pains to point out that rooting a Shakespearian tale in such a radical setting isn’t just a gimmick.

“It’s not like me coming up with some pretentious directorial conceit and trying to shoehorn a play into it,” he insists.

Rather, creating a disturbing, apocalyptic world for the action is in keeping with what the Bard was doing back in the 1600s.

Macbeth has long been considered Shakespeare’s most sinister work, a tale of power-lust and paranoia in which the protagonist plunges deep into moral depravity, murdering his way to the top.

So unsettling is the play that for centuries, it has been believed to be cursed, with many theatre types preferring to call it “the Scottish play” rather than invoke potential damnation by speaking its name aloud.

“The world Shakespeare conjures is incredibly feral,” Lloyd explains.

“He’s constantly describing this place of complete blackness, where the sun and stars no longer shine in the sky.

“There are these amazing, graphic descriptions where the earth shakes and horses eat each other. It’s an odd and twisted place.”

%TNT Magazine% Rehearsal Images James McAvoy Macbeth in Macbeth Photo Johan Persson 1

Concerned that setting his production in the era it was first written would dull its relevance to a contemporary audience, Lloyd was eager to create a context that would strike a chord. But placing it in the present day wasn’t going to work – Macbeth plotting his reign of terror on an iPad or Lady M trolling on Twitter would be absurd.

Instead, Lloyd looked to find “some sense of a world that is recognisably ours but 50 years down the line.

What about if the UK was split into separate nations and that led to some kind of dreadful economic downfall?

And if that was combined with extreme environmental catastrophe?” Cheery stuff.

Still, there is an element to Lloyd’s vision of hooking a new generation into Shakespeare by updating the story, in much the same way films such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo And Juliet and Julia Styles-starring O (based on Othello) have tried before.

Indeed, Macbeth is the first in a season of plays by Lloyd, called Trafalgar Transformed, that seek to posit London theatre as less elitist.

It’s true that taking in a show in the capital is prohibitively priced for many – there’s a big difference between gambling £50 per head on a West End production you may or may not enjoy and £12 at the cinema.

To combat this sense of theatre as something not meant for the masses, all tickets for Macbeth will be priced at £15 on every Monday of its run, with half of them only available through a special scheme aimed at schools and first-time theatre-goers. 

%TNT Magazine% Rehearsal Images Jamie Lloyd Director Macbeth Photo Johan Persson

Having a Hollywood star’s mug on your promotional poster is also a neat trick if you want to grab people’s attention.

Lloyd and McAvoy have worked together before, on 2009’s Three Days Of Rain at the Apollo Theatre, and Lloyd says his leading man was a huge influence when forming a vision for his latest play. 

“I loved the idea of Macbeth being a younger man,” the director says.

“The kind of warfare Shakespeare describes is not a cold, clean bullet to the head.

“At one point, we’re told [Macbeth] slices a man open from the bellybutton to the chin.

Killing someone isn’t something that’s over and done within seconds; it’s an exhausting process, so it makes sense if you’ve got a young man who’s full of energy, absolutely match fit and able to do it to many, many people in the course of one day. And James is a believable warrior.”

During the course of our conversation, Lloyd’s excitement about the project is audible – not only in his words, but the boundless energy with which he delivers them.

He sounds like a man possessed. And that’s because the director’s intentions for Macbeth and Trafalgar Transformed go far beyond simply giving his audience a good night out.

Along with award-winning designer Soutra Gilmour, he has reconceived Trafalgar Studios so that a third of the audience will be sitting on the stage with the actors, surrounded by the set – the detritus of a derelict factory.

(Considering there’s going to be a lot of blood and guts flying about, should the front row bring emergency ponchos? “There might be a bit of splash back,” Lloyd laughs.

“It’ll be a process of discovery across previews. If you’re in the early audiences, you might get a little bit messy.”) The idea behind the design is that it completely immerses the spectator in the action.

“It isn’t just about having a jolly lovely time at the theatre,” Lloyd tells us.

“It’s got to engage. We’ve got to work out why the theatre is [still] relevant, and I believe it’s got to be outward-looking to survive.

“So this points the finger outwards and says, you could be Macbeth, you could make the same choices.

“He’s not a dictator from a previous age. We’re all capable of this.” 

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There are a few hallmarks to Lloyd’s short but stratospheric career, despite his body of work being so disparate.

He’s directed everything from new writing (Olivier award-winning The Pride), to musicals (another award-winner, Piaf, which he also took to Buenos Aires and Madrid), and now the Bard.

Across all of these, visual flair and theatrical intensity have been the Jamie Lloyd brand; one critic even called Three Days Of Rain “excessively atmospheric”.  

Perhaps this wild creativity is unsurprising; Lloyd’s upbringing, living above a fancy dress shop in Poole, Dorset, with a stepfather who worked as a children’s entertainer and kept dwarf rabbits in the living room (“they used to poo all over the carpet”) and a snake-charming lodger, did, in his own words, “stimulate imagination”.

“It wasn’t a normal childhood,” he laughs.

“There were these peculiar characters around all the time.”

So, while Macbeth might have James McAvoy out front, we should be equally excited that a man like Jamie Lloyd is pulling the strings at the back.

“We’re all absolutely committed to the project and are totally excited about it,” he says, a genuine, palpable passion crackling down the phone line.

“I hope that kind of enthusiasm will be infectious.” It really is. 


Macbeth. Feb 9-April 27. 
Mon-Sat, 7.30pm; Thur & Sat, 2.30pm. 

£10-£54.50. All tickets £15 on Mondays, day seats for £10 available Tue-Sat.  
Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, Westminster, SW1A 2DY   
Tube | Charing Cross


Photos: Johan Persson